The fugitive kings
Impunity is an odd word. There used to be a heaviness to it, an almost incomprehensibility. It was a word used by lawyers and diplomats and judges, it was not part of school reports or interviews with the media. It was too big to be effective in sound bites, too foreign for speeches and tomato-tossing rallies. Impunity, like genocide, was a word that had power. To say it is to claim a state of such savagery that to use it is in itself a call to arms.
In the last half of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s administration, impunity became the battle cry of the progressives. As the body count rose, so did the word’s usage. Dead activists, disappeared journalists, a student shot in the back of a bus, a mother shot at her dinner table, a lawyer shot after opening his front door. An incident in Mindoro was reported, of a human rights leader found in a bamboo grove with her face crushed into pudding, her colleague’s body sprawled beside her. Her name was Eden Marcellana, wife and mother, who was preparing a case to oppose the promotion of then Col. Jovito Palparan Jr. Her killing led to a Senate hearing, an investigation, and the naming of the accused. And still Palparan became a general, his lieutenant went on to be part of the narrative of torture, murder and rape recited to the world by a farmer named Raymond Manalo.
There is a culture of impunity, said the human rights groups. Impunity, said the international community. Congressmen gave speeches, activists scrawled impunity on their posters. It must end, it must be stopped, it is a disgrace to the world.
And so when Benigno Aquino III entered the arena, he promised to put an end to a culture that killed his father and threw his family into exile. He said it again in January this year, standing before the diplomatic corps, promising to step up efforts in bringing to justice those “who seek to perpetuate the culture of impunity” in the country.
A hundred and fifteen days after the Bulacan Regional Trial Court Branch 14 issued a warrant for his arrest, nearly six years after Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño were dragged screaming by armed men from a farmhouse in Hagonoy, Bulacan, retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan, hero to the right, hangman to the left, remains at large.
He wasn’t in Pasig City when they raided his house in Lakeview, Bagong Ilog. He wasn’t in Las Terrazas, Ma-a, Davao City, when the police stormed the home of his running mate Teodoro Garcia in January. He is not, says an indignant Armed Forces, in any of its camps or under the protection of any of its men. The Justice Secretary says there have been sightings of the fugitive, and that tracker teams are still out hunting. The Communist Party of the Philippines has ordered the New People’s Army to join the search. The mothers of the missing, whose abduction and illegal detention resulted in the case against the country’s most wanted man, continue to stand in bus stations and waiting sheds, handing out copies of his wanted posters. Sources say that he is still issuing threats, forcing the witnesses who faced him in court to go into hiding themselves.
This is what impunity is.
Panfilo Lacson, senator of the republic, writer of laws, gone for a year after a warrant was issued for his arrest, announced through Facebook posts that he would rather die than surrender. “It may not be the best way to spend geezerhood, but unless you get me ahead of my time, I prefer to suffer in pain but with dignity, sitting alone with my conscience for the rest of my life, rather than do time in jail for a crime I did not commit.” And when he returned, after the Aquino election, the President and his men were happy to welcome him.
“We welcome the return of Sen. Ping Lacson,” said President Aquino’s spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, “so that he can put closure to the accusations hurled against him.”
Joel Reyes, retired governor of Palawan, accused recently of the murder of mediaman and environmentalist Gerry Ortega, is now in hiding along with his brother, Coron Mayor Mario Reyes. The former governor’s wife, now the vice governor, defends her missing husband to the media. “He is not hiding to avoid justice. He will come out in due time—once the threats have subsided.”
And so Joel Reyes sends his messages to the radio stations, campaigning for love and understanding among the people of Palawan. He is hiding, he says, “in the hearts of the people” of Palawan.
Impunity means a man called “butcher” can appear in court every month for six months, talking to the media about his political plans, praising himself for his commitment to the rule of law, and then disappear the moment that rule of law holds him accountable. Impunity means a former governor can announce to the public he will determine the proper time of his appearance, while the children of the man he is accused of killing wait for word from the Department of Justice. Impunity means a senator who announces he is returning from a year of evading the law can expect no less than the warm welcoming arms of the country’s new President. Impunity is the fact that a man named Rizal Hilario is not behind bars, in spite of his command over the 24th Infantry Battalion whose barracks housed Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño. This, after a witness narrated how he was told by M/Sgt. Rizal Hilario: “You’re lucky you’re still alive.”
Chief Supt. Agrimero Cruz Jr., spokesperson of the Philippine National Police, says the PNP is doing its best to accomplish its mandate that it will press on with the manhunt operations for Palparan, the Reyeses and all other fugitives from the law. He is unable to accept congressional criticism of the police’s failure to arrest the wanted.
“Instead of coming out with these statements, it would be better to just help out. After all, this responsibility doesn’t just fall on the PNP but also [on] the community. The PNP is doing its part. We should not be so impatient. We’re following procedures. Our tracker teams are doing their jobs,” Cruz said.
It is difficult to understand what sort of community assistance Cruz demands, and what length of patience he is requiring from victims who for five years sat in the same courtroom as the man they believe tortured their daughters. Perhaps he would like more news reports and public calls for manhunts, maybe he prefers that the children of Ortega join the tracker teams when they knock on Reyes’ door.
This is also what impunity is, of the sort that men like Reyes, Palparan and Hilario are counting on—when men in the service of justice deny responsibility whenever they are found failing in duty.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.